The following may be debatable in some circles, but I believe it is the emmis (the rock-bottom truth):
The real reason people work is to distract themselves from the terrible awareness that they are going to die.
Okay, it’s out. Do I feel better now? A little exposed, but to a substantial degree, relieved.
It is true, you also work to make money to support yourself and your family, or, if you don’t have one, at least, hopefully, a house pet. The question is, if the government – or, more comfortably, an inherited trust fund – took care of your financial requirements, would you then just lie around the house, or wherever it is they are paying for you to live?
No. You would eventually find something to do. Why? Because if you didn’t, more likely sooner than later, the Torturous Goblins of Mortality would take up permanent residence in your unoccupied mind.
It can’t just be any work. In order to successfully divert your mind from the “Really Bad Thing” it has to be purposeful work. Although it is not difficult and is, in fact, essential – to convince yourself that whatever you do is believably worthwhile.
“I paint fish.”
“You do what?”
“I catch fish, I paint them pretty colors, and I put them back in the water.”
“You paint fish.”
“I may be the only fish painter in the world. If I stopped, there’d be nobody.”
“Aren’t a lot of fish already colored?”
“Not in my colors.”
“And the paint. Doesn’t it wear off in the water?”
“Did I say it didn’t? Which is fine. I just catch ‘em, and paint ‘em again!”
There you have it. A person’s “life’s work” – painting fish. Scoff ye not. Fish painting is a viable distractor from thoughts of “Oh, my God! I am actually going to die?” because the job never ends. The paint wears off, plus, there’s an uncountable number of fish.
“Purposeful work.” That’s all it takes.
Okay, so we’re recently dining with a couple, the wife of whom, like mine, is a psychoanalyst. Psychologists ask questions; that’s what they do. Five minutes into dinner, she is probing into my blog-writing activities.
My “painting fish.”
We get around to the fact that my work takes me a number of hours every weekday to complete, because I refuse to let go until I’ve gotten whatever post I am working on that day…
The psychoanalyst immediately jumps in, observing with a hint of intensity that “There is no ‘right.’” It is quickly apparent she is talking about her work, where it is generally accepted that there is no “right” interpretation that will reveal and explain – and then, at least in movies, heal – what is fundamentally bugging the patient.
Fine, I fume inwardly. Maybe there is no “right” in her racket, but there is definitely a “right” in mine. Otherwise, why would I spend hours rewriting my blog posts in an assiduous effort to get there?
(I went into my wastebasket and retrieved my drafts of yesterday’s post – of which there were three – and counted the changes I had made. In the course of a three-hour-and-ten-minute effort, I made 76 changes in my First Draft, 40 changes in my Second Draft, and eleven changes in my Third. I work hard for you. Though also, of course, for myself. To do the best possible job. But, also, though hardly incidentally, to “prolong the distraction.”
Energetically defending my process, I blurted out, knowing it was stupid the moment it exited my mouth, “If there’s no ‘right’, then there’s no ‘wrong!’” (I was impulsively encouraged in this regard by the reasoning in the arena of behavior, where without the contrasting example of “bad”, there can be no understanding of “good.” But somehow it’s different.)
The “shrink” and I ultimately found common ground, agreeing that, though there is, in truth, no ideal and perfect “right” in both our endeavors, there are, at least, gradations advancing in the direction of “right.”
That’s what I do when I rewrite. I advance, ploddingly but inexorably, towards the direction of “right.” (It’s a paradox. There is no “right.” But it is possible to get closer. How can you get closer to something that does not exist? I don’t know. But you can.)
If I cannot make the post perfect, I can at least make it better, and, with a nod to Spike Lee, mo’ better, and mo’ better still. It’s, however, essential to believe that that’s what I’m doing. Because if my activity was not demonstrably valuable and I was simply wasting hours of time, I would decidedly not be engaged in…
Purposeful work. (And, by the way, neither would the psychologist. Nor the fish painter.)
And I am. (Me and the psychologist both. The fish painter? Give me a break!)
I am now done writing. And you know what? It worked. In the course of this entire process – Duration: Three hours and twenty-three minutes; First Draft, sixty-two changes, Second Draft, thirty seven changes; Third Draft, twenty-three changes; Fourth Draft, ten changes, including two “changes back” – not once have thoughts of dying crept cripplingly into my consciousness.
Now I’ve done it.
And my work today is over.
I think I’ll go practice the piano.
That seems to work pretty well also.